Sunday, July 10, 2011

Michael Mantler - The Jazz Composer's Orchestra

Biographical details regarding Michael Mantler seem to be fairly scarce. Trawling about on-line, we see that he was born in Vienna in 1943, began playing trumpet at 12, worked in dance hall bands from the age of 14 and, in 1962, immigrated to the US to study at Berklee, an experience he apparently found uninspiring. He moved to New York in 1964, quickly hooking up with musicians involved in the “October Revolution in Jazz“ and, in particular, with Carla Bley, forming a personal and musical relationship that lasted until 1992. The pair formed the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra in 1964, and also the Jazz Realities Quintet which, at various times, included Steve Lacy, Peter Brötzmann, Kent Carter and Peter Kowald.

His first release, from 1965, already bore the title, “Communication” and featured a hefty collection of musicians including Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, John Tchicai, Paul Bley, Jimmy Lyons, Roswell Rudd and more. The music shows glimmers of things to come or larger aspirations perhaps, but is more a mass of somewhat exciting, somewhat muddled improvisation, very loosely molded along vague structures. I’m not at all sure what transpired in the ensuing three years, whether or not Mantler acquired any formal training in orchestration (whether he ever had any at all, in fact, of if he was self-taught, which it sometimes sounds like), but whatever the case, by the time he was 25, his conception had matured and blossomed into an astonishing creature.

The first album under the JCOA imprint was a two-record set that arrived in a gleaming silver box bearing the simple title, “The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra”, followed by a listing of the principal soloists, Cecil Taylor’s name separated from the rest: Don Cherry, Roswell Rudd, Pharoah Sanders, Larry Coryell and Gato Barbieri.  Along the bottom, read, “Music Composed and Conducted by Michael Mantler”. Inside was a 12 x 12” booklet bearing track information, photos, scores,  an excerpt from Beckett’s “How It Is”, a two-page poem by Taylor  and texts by Paul Haines and Timothy Marquand. The pieces once again, with one exception (“Preview”), bore the title, “Communications”, here numbered 8 through 11. Looking at the instrumentation, we still see what is essentially a jazz big band, larger than the prior recording (over 20 musicians) and notable for the presence of five bassists.  The sound generated, however, was orchestral.

It was a wonderful idea, one borne partly of the time but not really followed through anywhere else to the degree heard here, much less with similar success: Compose works for a band of extremely talented musicians that fused a kind of dark, brooding Romanticism, as though Arnold Böcklin’s vision was filtered through Mahler by way of Beckett, all exposed to the protean strength and creativity of 60s free jazz. Within this dense mix, position soloists whose voices emerge from the roiling darkness as brilliantly faceted jewels, unleashed from the group but gravitationally pulled back into it. Add to this the serendipity of the chosen soloists being at or near the height of their powers and you have the recipe for one incredible stew.

An obvious key to the success of these works is the dense, sprawling orchestration that Mantler laid down behind the soloists—“behind” isn’t the correct term as the music writhes and gropes, sending out thick tendrils that envelop the featured musicians, never allowing things to atrophy into a soloist/accompaniment form, but keeping things, for lack of a better term, extraordinarily organic and plastic.  As the first track, “Communications #8” begins, the orchestra wells up, already seething, sounding somehow more “orchestral” than jazz-bandish despite the instrumentation (the massed basses might be a contributory factor). Mantler’s score-notes for the piece: “For a team of players. Loosely strung. Much singing. Release. A long descent.” The long, brooding tones are routinely disrupted by more staccato passages, Bley’s spiky piano ameliorating any smooth flow, the whole jittery and dark before Cherry’s clarion pocket trumpet enters. Cherry, in the late 60s, to these ears, reached an astonishing peak of melodic inventiveness, doubtless inspired by his absorption of Eastern musics, though transformed into something very unique (see: “Eternal Rhythm”). He negotiates a path through the maze of strings and horns, graceful but not a little tragic. Again, crucially, he’s on equal footing, not in front of the orchestra but within, a single mass. Then the fire-breathing Barbieri enters, full force, ripping through his tenor, himself having entered a period of unfettered creativity that would carry through to “Escalator  Over the Hill” and “Tropic Appetites” before fame and final tangos ensnared him. But he’s so strong here, soon entwining with Cherry, plaintive and vital Cherry, forming a complex vine of sound, whirling through the arrangement, the tubas and French horns darkly billowing, Cyrille driving the ensemble with abandon. And the long, not unruffled descent.

“Communication #9” (“About the weaving of clusters. The natural electric orchestra. The amplifier.”), oddly enough, might be the “weakest” piece here at the same time as it could be the finest thing Coryell ever recorded. I remember reading an interview with Coryell a long while back wherein he expressed his frustration that every time he’d make what he thought was a significant advance in pushing forward the possibilities of the electric guitar, he’d soon find out that Hendrix had beaten him by a few months. Well, here in May of ’68, he’s certainly pressing at boundaries, at least those walls set up in the galaxy apart from Rowe and Bailey.  The orchestration is sparer, piano and high string harmonics supporting quietly harsh brass that feed directly into the initial feedback-laden guitar. Photos from the session show Coryell engaged in a wrestling match, his guitar vs. the amp; perhaps half of his time here is spent wringing feedback from his axe, a bit more up front than were Cherry and Barbieri, and maybe indulging, in this context, in a tad more flashy playing than necessary, but nonetheless impressive.

Steve Swallow’s gorgeous, questioning bass introduces “Communications #10” (“Expansion. The exquisite low horn”), worth the price of entry on its own, before the elegiac reeds and brass, evocative of some of Carla Bley’s writing, usher in the body of the piece, again laying a substantial bed, open to and full of possibilities from which the featured player emerges, here Roswell Rudd, his natural buoyancy spiced with no small amount of mordancy and even the tinge of despair. Beckett is never far from Mantler’s conception.

“to have done then at last with all that last scraps very last when the panting stops and this voice to 
have done with this voice namely this life.”

Rudd trends toward his horn’s lower reaches, bringing forth guttural shouts from the surly orchestral growls. As with the others, it’s difficult to think of a finer, more expansive performance from him, as though Mantler had provided exactly the right framework and accompaniment, especially Beaver Harris here, on drums.
And then there’s “Preview”, a 3:23 blast furnace attack with white hot slag erupting from the bell of Pharoah Sanders’ tenor over the incessant, almost martial throb of the orchestra. No let up, start to finish, one of the mostly densely packed, insanely ecstatic performances on record, something guaranteed to send the neighbors fleeing in alarm. Has Sanders ever sounded this volcanic elsewhere? Is there another example where concision and raw power are so perfectly combined? An exhausting, astonishing work.

And, really, it proves to be only a stage-setter, an appetizer for what follows: about 33 minutes, in two sections, of some of the music incredibly inventive and dynamic Cecil Taylor playing ever caught on record, “Communications #11”. (“From the association with one man. The orchestration of his piano.”) I remember reading the review of this piece in downbeat, the writer explaining that he felt the need to glance over at his stereo to ensure that the LP wasn’t levitating off the turntable. It really is that strong, protean, a living, throbbing, hyper-imaginative set of music with the wonderful happenstance of Mantler’s ideas blossoming at the exact moment Taylor was making the transition in his playing from the fevered hermetics of his two mid-60s masterpieces, “Unit Structures” and “Conquistador!” into the elaborate and expansive explorations that would soon be heard in works like “Indent” and “Silent Tongues”.  Trying to describe it is something of a fool’s errand anyway; I’ve often had the mental image of a cauldron containing molten metal, boiling, sustaining a plosive pattern somewhere between regularity and chaos. Unlike many a “pairing” between Taylor and a playing companion where the pianist all but overwhelms his ostensible partner, the orchestra gives as good as it gets, spurring him outward. It’s an avant piano concerto that indeed nods back to a kind of Mahlerian tonality while giving Taylor free rein to pull it toward the 21st century. An utterly breathtaking work, successful on multiple counts and a high water mark in Taylor’s career.

At least that’s my take on it; one wonders about Mantler’s. He never really broached this area again, with the arguable exception of his monolithic and extremely impressive “13” from 1975, which shared an LP with Bley’s beguiling and lovely “3/4”, itself a piano concerto of sorts but in a far lighter vein. Otherwise, he tended to work with smaller ensembles, early on notching a couple of outstanding one-offs, “No Answer”, a setting of Beckett text with Cherry, Bley and Jack Bruce and “The Hapless Child”, a prog-rockish rendition of several Edward Gorey poems featuring Robert Wyatt, Terje Rypdal and others. He continued to utilize Beckett and like-minded writers and his work became even bleaker, often intriguing but, to these ears, lacking that unique combination of latent Romanticism to leaven the dourness; there was no Cecil Taylor to provide the ecstatic leaps from the muck.  If anyone picked up the torch, one would have to cite Barry Guy with his London Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, albeit with a necessarily different personal tinge and, arguably, a level of soloist one tier below these fellows here (while still excellent).

Yet I don’t hear this recording, this set of “Communications”, discussed very often and think it’s a shame. For this listener, it stands as one of the very finest creations of the 60s jazz avant garde and deserves far wider recognition.

--Brian Olewnick


  1. There's a torrent of a very good quality rip of the Mantler / Bley 13 / 3/4 at

  2. No seeds :(

    Cool write up! I'm doing an under-grad paper on 13-3/4, found this very useful.